Guest Column / MLS

A slightly tarnished Supporters’ Shield?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

I’ve spent recent weeks arguing with fans about the Supporter’s Shield and why the merit of the award is influenced by Major League Soccer’s unbalanced schedule.

There’s been a lot of confusion about the whole thing. So, instead of posting more aimless snippets on Twitter, I wanted to elaborate on a more appropriate platform.

Let me preface the article by saying this: There’s no “sour grapes” sentiment here. My position as a contributor for a rival team doesn’t influence how I feel about New York winning the shield. They finished the regular season with the most points and therefore deserve it under the established rules.

They absolutely earned it.

With that being said, here’s the point I’ll try to argue —

The Supporter’s Shield loses value when the teams competing for the prize are playing different schedules.

“Balanced” vs. “Unbalanced” Scheduling

A bit of background first –

When Philadelphia Union joined the league in 2010, MLS had a 30-game schedule. You played each team once at home and once on the road, just like they do in the England, Spain, and Italy. In 2011, the schedule was expanded to 34 games, but you still played each team in the league twice.

That was the “balanced schedule.”

In 2012, the league shifted from 18 to 19 teams with the addition of Montreal. MLS decided to create a calendar in which each team would play conference foes two or three times each season. In exchange, you would only play non-conference teams once per campaign and the venue would switch from year to year. This cut down on travel and created a larger emphasis on regional rivalry.

It’s what we call the “unbalanced schedule”.

The heart of the argument regarding the Supporter’s Shield is that it doesn’t make quite as much sense to hand out an award for “best regular season record” when the playing field is uneven.

Case in point:

The Western Conference was stronger than the Eastern Conference this year. Here’s the head-to-head statistic, courtesy of ESPN’s Paul Carr.

Strength of schedule matters

Looking at both conferences, Chivas USA was certainly a failure, but the East had TWO bottom dwelling teams in D.C. United and Toronto FC.

The Red Bulls benefited by playing both D.C. and Toronto three times this season. They went 4-0-2 in those six games and earned 14 of their 59 points against the worst two teams in the conference.

Portland and RSL did not have the luxury of playing D.C. and Toronto three times. The Timbers went 2-0-1 and earned seven points against Chivas, but they also had to play Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Colorado, and Dallas three times each.

New York only had to play those tough Western Conference teams once.

On the other hand, the Red Bulls had to play five road games against the West (SJ, Portland, Seattle, Chivas, Colorado) and played the other four teams (RSL, LA, Vancouver, Dallas) at home. That’s an example of something that helps New York’s argument. It’s a quirk that comes from having only nine teams in the West and ten teams in the East.

You can see the little irregularities that occur in this setup.

That’s why it’s important to talk about “strength of schedule,” which is typically a college football and basketball statistic. We use SOS and RPI concepts when it comes to BCS Bowl selection and March Madness. Those quantitative figures determine how we compare Alabama football to Virginia Tech football, where one team plays in the stronger SEC and the other plays in the weaker ACC. It’s same the reason Gonzaga is typically handicapped in NCAA Tournament seeding. They have to play lesser teams like St. Mary’s and Pepperdine in their conference. North Carolina has to contend with Duke, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh.

Think of it this way.

In the English Premier League, you play each team once at home and once on the road. Imagine if the schedule was changed and Arsenal had to play Manchester United three times at Old Trafford, while Chelsea got Wigan three times at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal fans would go nuts and argue that they had the tougher road. The concerns would be valid.

So, in summary:

  1. New York had a phenomenal year, and they won the Supporter’s Shield fair and square under the established rules. They deserve it.
  2. The Supporter’s Shield loses value when each team plays a different schedule.


  1. The supporters shield was around a long time before 2010, and the schedule was just as unbalanced as it is now. Personally I think their should be a trophy for each conference, and award Champions League spots to each conference winner, plus the USOC and MLS Cup champ. Just making MLS Cup should not be worthy of a CCL place.

    • I think this is a good idea especially considering that I imagine the two conferences will split even more as the league adds more teams.

    • I completely agree. I’ve felt this way for a long time. If MLS wants success in the CCL AND play with 2 conferences (something I favor personally) then the best way to reward that would be the 2 conference champs, USOC champ and MLS Cup winner. If the MLS Cup champ is also a conference champion then the Cup runner-up gets in. This will help avoid the potential of 2 wild-cards winning the CCL spots while leaving a deserving team like Portland, RSL or SKC last season (had they not won the USOC) with nothing.

    • I like your idea, but who gets to host MLS Cup?

      • Just stick with whichever of the two has the better record

      • What about the idea that whichever of the two teams was the road team when they met during the regular season gets to be the home team in the cup?

  2. If the Union supporters now kill the mocking of RBNY’s lack of hardware, we all win. For a city that went so long before championships in the 4 other sports, it seems unwise to tempt the gods thusly.

  3. The trophy for each conference still doesn’t completely do it for the East, since each team plays 7 of the other 9 three times and the other 2 only twice. Imagine if one team had drawn DC and Toronto as the 2 to play twice?

    The other issue which was a problem even in 2010-11 is that the schedule timing is not balanced. In the BPL, with rare exception, if there is one midweek game, there are ten midweek games, so everyone has roughly the same amount of rest. Yes, there are exceptions such as when Chelsea had the Champions Cup and had to reschedule one of their matches (similar to the way the Union-RSL game was postponed a couple of years ago because of the CCL final). But those are the exception rather than the rule. Imagine if the schedule was such that there were ten times when NYRB played a team on the weekened that had just played a midweek game but that LA Galaxy only had that happen once. Would that be a fair schedule, even if it were balanced?

  4. Congrats on generating an interesting post on something that really isn’t debatable.

  5. I like the idea of the Supporter’s Shield, but totally agree that we need a balanced schedule to give it value. In some respects, it could actually be a more valuable distinction for the players and coaches who have grinded out every game beginning in March all summer long rather than the teams who start taking things seriously in August, sneak into the playoffs and steal an MLS Cup (ahem, Houston). If travel is that much of an issue, then we would have to make two separate conferences with two separate Supporter’s Shields, but that seems kind of lame.
    I’m also hearing the argument for less teams in the playoffs, but I actually think that half of the league getting in is a good thing. It gives a much larger fan base the ability to see high quality games deep into the season rather than having a bunch of meaningless games starting in August.
    20 teams. Balanced schedule. 1 Supporter’s Shield. 10 team playoff for MLS Cup.

  6. I feel like this post is left just a bit short. I definitely like the idea behind it, but it could use further analysis to really drive the point home. What would happen if you applied the PPG each team (NYRB, RSL, Portland, etc) had against the other MLS teams to a balanced schedule? I wonder if NYRB would still come out on top.

    • I did the math (points earned x 2 / games played) for each combination and believe it or not, Vancouver wins the Supporters shield in that scenario. They racked up an amazing 22 points against the East which gets doubled. The team with the next most points in interconference play was Seattle with 18 (they finish 3rd overall behind Portland). The top team in the East is Houston. The Union move up to 6th in the conference (13th overall) passing New England who drops to 7th. RSL drops to 6th in the West, even though they are tied with NY for 7th in the league.

  7. Playoffs have no place in top flight soccer. And while we’re not quite up to most top flight soccer standards in the world, we are the top flight of American soccer.

    It just serves no purpose. If it does serve a purpose, please explain, other than letting teams who didn’t.. you know.. play well in the regular season like you’re supposed to, have a chance to win a more prestigious award than the actual first place team.

    Single table. Play every team, home and away. 1st place is the winner, 2nd place and below lose. It’s that simple. USOC winner, 1st place, 2nd, and 3rd make it to CCL. Balanced schedules. Same amount of travel for every team.

    The end.

    Conferences are a waste.

    • That’s all well and good I guess but it ignores a lot of things that make MLS different from other leagues. The area this league covers is vastly larger than other big leagues and there needs to be a way to cut down on the distance the teams have to travel over the course of the season. This problem will only compound as the league expands. With more teams the idea of home and away becomes even less feasible considering the amount of games they would have to play and how much travel would have to happen. If anything the league might need to break up into even more conferences.

      • Travel could be reduced by planning road trips. Make arrangements with other teams or universities in the area to get access to facilities for a week or so, and then do something like having the Union play Chivas on a Wednesday, Galaxy on Sunday and San Jose the following Saturday. Hotel costs are higher – it’s a 10 day trip – but it’s lower transportation costs and less travel time for the teams. You could do similar trips with Colorado – Salt Lake, and Cascadia.
        For teams coming east, there are plenty of options for pairing up games with NE, NY (x2), Philly, and DC all within a few hours of each other, and you could even toss Montreal into that pile. Toronto-Chicago-Columbus is another close grouping.
        So there are ways to minimize the impact of travel, if not the costs than at least the effects on the players.

      • I’m not convinced that any teams would be interested in doing things that way, being away from home for two weeks or more. This also doesn’t address the fact that as the league expands this will mean more games. There will be 24 teams (they say by 2020 but I think it will be a lot sooner. Also I can definitely see the league expanding beyond that point considering the rising demand) which would mean 46 games a season not including Open Cup and playoffs.

      • If the goal is a balanced schedule, there is going to have to be something that bends. Having a 46 game season is one of those things, and having to make a lot of road trips is another. I would think – though can’t really prove, of course – that it’d be better for teams to take a 10-12 day road trip for a three game stretch than it would be to make three separate west coast or Cascadia trips.
        (And as an aside note, I’m not of the opinion you need a balanced schedule. I’m just making an argument of how to minimize travel impact if they do go there.)

      • @John Exactly, good way of pointing that out.

        @Kyle.. Well playoffs would be eliminated because.. well.. they serve no purpose in a single table format, just as they serve no purpose now. 46 game season is very doable and as John pointed out, there are ways to cut back on fatigue from travel and some cost in doing so.

        Anyway, once the league does hit 24 teams, what would a schedule look like in that case? If they follow the format they do now (in conference three times, out of conference once) we’d be looking at a 45 game schedule + playoffs (if they still stick to that pathetic format). And if you play in conference twice, and out of conference once that’s a 33 game season + playoffs.

        Either way it’s going to be a longer season or a shorter season.

        Single table, twice a team. That’s just the way to go. Conferences and playoffs are just worthless.

      • I’m not sure why playoffs should be considered pathetic or conferences worthless. There are a lot of people that like the added drama or excitement of playoffs and the value of conferences has been pointed out. Its clear that you don’t agree but it isn’t self evident that the league is better off or more fun to watch under a single table without playoffs. I still think that a single table isn’t even really feasible as the league gets bigger

  8. I think MLS needs to get rid of the Unbalanced schedule, suck it up and pay the travel.

  9. The unbalanced schedule is an unfortunate and unavoidable reality given the number of teams and geographic logistics. Thats said, even in a balanced schedule, its never completely fair – some teams play each other before or after the summer transfer window, when players get added, or in different weather, or some teams are playing CCL and extended USOC runs, etc., etc.

    A balanced schedule makes the Sheild competition more fair, but its still a substantial accomplishment. And you can alwasy – for personal amusement – look at the head-to-head results. For example, NY played all the top teams in teh west, and only one managed to beat them (Colorado). Seattle and Portland bioth had their shot at NY, in their stadiums, and could only manage ties. For me, that gives plenty of legitimacy to their title.

    As for the euro-snob denigration of our playoff system, go away. The playoff format mirrors the World Cup and every other knock-out competition. If its goof enough for the World Cup… its good enough for me. Playoffs also are meaningful because they test teams at the end of the season, when they should be at their peak form. We all know teams are often very different (and usually worse) at the start of the season. And playoffs are, in fact, used around the world to determine final promotion slots.

  10. There is no tarnish on RBNYs trophy. They earned it. It’s theirs. If you want to look at tarnish, look at MLS Cup winners when there were 10 teams and it had all the importance of the old MISL trophy. In other words, when was the golden era of soccer that these trophies were pristine? Never happened. So the argument that NY got an extra cream puff from the scheduling dessert tray and that’s why they should be asterisked is ridiculous. Ask the NHL if Montreal should take down some of those banners when the league was just 6 teams. Ask the Eagles to give back the 1960 Championship because the NFL only had 13 teams. No? Because it’s a stupid idea? Got it.

    Also, if you think this league can support financially a a balanced schedule, I think we need to look at a map. VAN to Orlando is 1500 miles. Same flight distance as London to Istanbul. Chelsea v Galatasaray pays a lot more than the OC Lions will. MLS can’t afford regular season games at that level of travel. I hate the conference thing, but it will keep MLS afloat. We are a continental sized league. Those other leagues play in EPCOT, it’s ridiculous to compare the two. London to Paris is a two hour train ride. The Rapids could maybe get to RSL in two hours, no one else. Chicago to Columbus, their nearest rival, is a 5 hour drive. As an away fan, unbalanced scheduling increases the chances of seeing a road game. I’d make the trip to DC or NY, San Jose not so much.

    • And an interesting unbalanced schedule gets real easy once they get to 24 teams. Two conferences, two divisions in each conference – so 12 teams per conference, 6 teams per division. Play the other teams in your division 3 times (15 games). Play the teams in your conference but not in your division 2 times (12 games). Play teams in the other conference once (12 games). That gives a slightly long 39 game schedule. I’d like to see MLS honor the international calendar, so you’ll have to squeeze in Wednesday games; when you do, every team plays on Wednesday to keep things as close to fair as possible in an unbalanced schedule.
      Top two teams from each division play a home and home series. The winners play a home and home series for the conference championship. Conference champs play a single game for MLS Cup. With this playoff setup, your standing in your division determines who gets in and everybody you’re competing for a playoff spot with has the same schedule as you. So there’s “balance” from the aspect of who gets in, and from there it’s like any other tournament in sports – the hottest team (not necessarily the best) will win.
      CCL spots go to the teams with the highest point total in their conference at the end of the season, the US Open Cup winner, and the MLS Cup winner. If one of those overlaps, take the MLS Cup runner-up. If there’s still overlap, take the team with the most points who isn’t already in.
      So depending on success in US Open Cup and MLS Playoffs, teams would have between 40 (39 regular season, 1 Open Cup) and 49 games a year (39 regular season, 5 Open Cup [I think that’s the number to get to the championship] and 5 playoff games). Teams in CCL will have to play a bit more. Start in the first week of March, and have MLS Cup when you have it scheduled now. You’ll probably need 4 or 5 midweek games to make that work and honor the FIFA calendar, but those midweek games can all be division matches so travel isn’t so bad.
      Make it happen, Garber!

      • That’s interesting, I’ve never seen anyone propose divisions. I’m not against the idea necessarily, but I’d be surprised if anything like this happened. The rumors I’ve read point to the league trying to reduce the number of games played.

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